Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed under $5 billion worth of public services for the next two years. The balanced budget or House Bill 2 is the one bill required to pass the upcoming 64th Montana Legislature.
Bullock proposed a $300 million surplus for 2017. Likewise, in his budget Bullock invests over $300 million across the state in infrastructure projects. He recommended that Montana pay cash for one-third of these projects and bond the other portions.
Infrastructure projects include $45 million for eastern Montana communities impacted by oil and gas development; $15 million for statewide broadband; $3 million for water projects; $31 million for school facilities; under $40 million for a new Montana Historical Society museum; and $7 million for a mental health facility in Fergus and Deer Lodge counties.
For the Flathead, Bullock’s proposed legislations have under $2 million in grants, loans, endowments and building projects. Plus there’s $44 million in new highway money. Flathead schools would receive more than $1 million in grants over the biennium and under $4 million in tuition tax cuts for those attending higher education.
Statewide Bullock seeks to freeze tuition in public higher education by spending $44 million on students over the next two years. Bullock proposes $3 million for keeping safe Montana’s most vulnerable children.
Most interesting is Bullock’s Healthy Montana Plan that saves nearly $60 million over two years and provides healthcare to 70,000 people statewide, including nearly 10,000 veterans. The plan uses federal money to help local families who are sick and local hospitals that struggle with uncompensated healthcare.
Bullock has an optimistic vision and with good reason. This year alone, more than 12,000 private sector jobs have been created. Today, nearly 500,000 are employed providing tax revenue to fund the great state of Montana. Statewide, unemployment is low.
Bullock seeks $23 million to provide apprenticeship tax cuts for businesses and better train employees for the changing business climate.
The 64th Legislature has preliminarily selected leadership, which is two-thirds from Great Falls and eastward. The provincial natures of Legislative politics will undoubtable escalate in the coming months.
Incoming Senate President Debby Barrett from Dillon said about Medicaid expansion, “That is not acceptable, oh no.” Incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen from Culbertson said that the town of “Sidney needs about $60 million now for sewer projects and upgrading water lines.”
Montana is doing well and some in eastern Montana have plenty of oil and gas money.
In Fiscal Year 2014 the ending fund balance per K-12 student for Richland County was nearly $18,000 while Fallon County was over $65,000. Comparatively, Flathead County was nearly $4,000.
In Fiscal 2013, Richland County received over $45 million in oil and gas distributions and Fallon County received nearly $17 million. Flathead County received zero.
In the ensuing budget battle is the fact that the Legislative Fiscal Division and the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning are 95 percent in agreement with general fund tax revenue projections for 2016.
Montana is a big state and Bullock acknowledged a clear vision for all people. This Legislature is likely to be run by eastern Montanans who will seek to invest in oil and gas counties.
Flathead homeowner and small business owners paid extra in the last property tax reappraisal. That session was dominated by eastern Montana legislators who sought property tax rates more compatible with Billings’ mill levy cap. In the 2015 reappraisal, western Montana homeowners must be made whole when it comes to money matters.
Montana is one state with the majority in the Legislature appropriating funds. Hopefully the 64th Legislature is looking for solutions. Policy like early childhood education, using federal healthcare money to pay for the uncompensated care of local hospitals, and pumping some extra taxpayer money into booming oil and gas counties could help a lot of people.
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